Spain’s withdrawal from Kosovo

29/3/09 Javi

Buenas a todos:

Aquí os paso un artículo de opinión que escribí tras el anuncio de la retirada de Kosovo y que envié a varios periódicos. No se ha publicado pero quisera compartirlo con vosotros y saber vuestra opinión.


“Politics is perception,” Senator Joe Biden advised the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, in 2004, after Spain withdrew its troops form Iraq.

The other major Spanish party, Partido Popular, had deployed the troops the year before. On past Thursday, March 20th, five years later, the Spanish government announced that Spain will pull back all 600 troops deployed for the NATO mission in Kosovo.

Spain’s decision to withdraw is consistent with its decision to not recognize the independence of Kosovo – independence that may serve as an example to secessionist parties in the Spanish regions of Catalonia and the Basque Country. At the same time, though, the way this was announced is not worthy of an ally.

More than any other country, the U.S. – which has military bases in Spanish territory – understands self-interest in pursuing a nation’s objectives. When and how, however, are critical – even more for Spain, given the great differences in economic and sheer military power. As a Spaniard living in the United States, I am stunned that my government has yet to learn Biden’s lesson, – currently vice president of the U.S.

Diplomacy has some basic rules: correct timing, adequate manners – symbols matter — and the realization that all actions entail consequences. The government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the Spanish prime minister, seems not to be aware of any of this.

Spain’s withdrawal should come as no surprise to the international community. What has startled NATO and the Spanish public opinion is how and when this decision was announced: Without prior notice – or with a very short and unclear one – to allies, at a military act in Kosovo during a speech by Spain’s Defense Minister to the Spanish troops, and, perhaps most importantly, just two weeks ahead of the NATO Heads of State summit that will commemorate the treaty organization’s 60-year existence.

Questions are many: Why now, already one year after the self-declared independence of Kosovo? Why not wait a couple of weeks? Is the Spanish government just trying to divert public attention from the dire economic situation? One hopes astute audacity hides behind this decision, but fears there is no more than improvisation and lack of coordination.

The Obama administration is already under enough stress both domestically and externally to need further trouble. Robert Wood, the State Department spokesman, had unusually strong words on the Spanish announcement: «We are deeply disappointed by this decision taken by Spain.”

Unfortunately, it is not the first time. In October of 2003, the opposition leader, Mr. Zapatero, did not stand up when a US Marine honor guard carrying the American flag walked past the VIP stand during the traditional military parade on the Spanish national holiday. It does not take long for a foreigner in the U.S. to perceive how Americans gather around the flag and those fallen while fighting for America’s allies, and certainly a political leader should be sensitive to that.

Mr. Zapatero’s protest of the invasion of Iraq – invasion disapproved by 90% of the population according to the Spanish official polling center C.I.S. – was seen by the U.S. government as an affront to the flag. The only visible consequence was U.S. troops not participating in the parade for the next two years. More importantly, however, was that this incident set the tone of future relationships with the U.S…

Just after he was sworn in as Prime Minister, Mr. Zapatero withdrew from Iraq in June 2004, as he had promised during the election campaign. But he did that so quickly, with little advance notice, that he angered Spain’s allies – who had asked for a longer transition and ultimately took many of the Spanish troops out of the country – freezing Mr. Zapatero’s relationship with President George W. Bush. Mr. Zapatero and Mr. Bush never even spoke on the phone between the time he was elected and Mr. Bush left office. Had it not been for a last-minute agreement with France, Spain would not have participated in the G-20 summit held in Washington last November. Mr. Zapatero’s requests fell on deaf ears from the Bush Administration. It was pay-off day.

The Spanish government had been hoping relations would thaw with the Obama administration. However, one should not forget that back in 2004, it had been precisely Senator Biden, at the time a member of the Committee on Foreign Relations, who was the harshest critic on the Spanish decision to pull out of Iraq. It would be naïve of the Spanish government not to expect negative consequences now. Trust builds slowly but falls apart rapidly.

Indeed, Spain has built trust elsewhere, participating in international missions from Bosnia to Lebanon – and Spanish soldiers have died in these missions. Spain’s contribution should not be forgotten but the harm has already been done and allied trust on Spanish reliability, although still standing after this gaffe, could be tottering.

Bernardino León, a very close advisor to Mr. Zapatero, tried to cool down things on his meeting with National Security Advisor General James Jones a day after the announcement. Mr. León announced – though yet is not clear – a back from previous plans: Spanish troops could stay in Kosovo one more year, thus contradicting the Spanish Defense Minister.

Such inconsistencies make no good to allied perception of Spain. To alleviate it, only a determined reinforcement of Spanish boots in Afghanistan, where NATO commanders crave for more troops appears as the only solution on sight– troop increment already requested by Vice President Biden to the Spanish Foreign Minister in 2004.

If it is true that politics is perception, then it is in Spain’s interest to be perceived, now more than ever, as a solid partner, not just by Americans but also by Spaniards. Mr. Zapatero’s recent and unexpected meeting with Vice President Biden is the confirmation of a mistaken announcement.

If, amidst the worst economic crisis in decades, when Spanish unemployment rate is close to 15%, the Spanish government wants to have a say and a seat in the decision table, it needs to create a climate of trust among its partners. Military cooperation definitely helps strengthens that trust.

Unfortunately, the decisions by the current Spanish government do not portend so. Unfortunately, until Mr. Zapatero masters timing and manners, I can only wonder when I will have to hear, once more, “Yet again, Spain?” Neither our allies nor my country deserve that kind of second-guessing.

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